The Singaporean firm slated to purchase Santa Fe University of Art and Design failed to comply with regulations in at least three countries, disrupting the educations of hundreds of students and leaving some with degrees unrecognized in their own nations, according to foreign court documents and news clippings reviewed by SFR.
Raffles, a for-profit corporation listed on the Singapore Exchange, in May announced that it agreed to acquire SFUAD from Laureate International Universities under a US subsidiary. The City of Santa Fe supports the transaction.
Founded in 1990 by CEO Chew Hua Seng, Raffles expanded rapidly over the last couple decades, establishing 30 institutions across 13 countries. For most of its history, the company focused solely on the Asia Pacific region.
Raffles in 2014 expanded its portfolio to Europe, purchasing a campus in Switzerland. And its pending acquisition of SFUAD represents its first foray into the US higher education market.
"We will continue SFUAD's current strong curriculum by adding new, expansive program offerings, strengthening student services, and investing in the physical infrastructure of the university," Chew said in a May press release. "In addition, this institution provides new opportunities to better prepare both US and Asian students to design their future and success for the global community."
But a closer look at Raffles' practices in Australia, Thailand and Vietnam shows the company's growth did not come without setbacks, including lawsuits and regulatory violations. "The thought that they are making an incursion into the US higher education system is horrifying," Brian Lewis, the former academic director of Raffles International School in Hanoi, tells SFR.
Raffles in 2012 suspended operations in Vietnam amid a national crackdown on international degree programs. The Ministry of Education, an arm of the country's ruling Communist Party, found that Raffles awarded degrees to Vietnamese students from its college in Australia despite only having authorization to issue vocational diplomas. Hundreds of students suddenly learned their home country would no longer recognize their degrees. Uproar ensued.
Keith Mishne, the former director of business programs at Hanoi International Training Center, says he translated during meetings between Raffles' officials and parents of affected students. (Mishne, an American who trained as an interpreter, speaks both Vietnamese and English, the lingua franca of Singapore.) "The parents were livid," Mishne tells SFR. "At one point they barricaded the director."
Raffles' withdrawal from Vietnam also affected employees who say the company abruptly terminated them without honoring the terms of their contracts. Five teachers from Raffles' college in Ho Chi Minh City sued the school for unpaid wages and severance. Employees of the Hanoi school also attempted to address their grievances in court.Lewis, the Hanoi school's former academic director, claims the company failed to pay him $70,000 in wages, according to a translated court petition.
Mishne says the school focused heavily on recruitment, routinely sending him to high schools to promote degree programs to prospective students. "The management was definitely financially oriented. They had a very good marketing department with a room where they did cold-calls," Mishne says. "I was the Western guy representing Raffles. I'd hand out prizes and make jokes."
The company ran into similar troubles in Thailand in 2009. According to a report in the Straits Times, a Singaporean newspaper, Thai education regulators found that Raffles Design Institute, based in Bangkok, enrolled students in an unauthorized degree program after it had already been warned to stop. As in Vietnam, the degrees came from the Raffles College of Design and Commerce in Sydney. Raffles' Australia degree hub also recently came under fire in the island nation down under. Australia's education standards agency in 2015 blocked Raffles from admitting international students to the Sydney-based school after finding multiple violations. According to court documents, the move could have affected more than 500 students. Among other violations related to record keeping, the agency found that Raffles failed to assess the English proficiency of overseas students to determine whether they could keep up in class. Raffles challenged the ruling in Australia's federal court, but a judge sided with the regulator. Through a spokesperson, Chew declined to answer a list of questions regarding the company's legal history in Vietnam, Thailand and Australia. He also did not comment on the status of Raffles' purchase agreement or whether the company would change SFUAD's name.
Asked whether the city has any concerns about the company's legal battles abroad, city spokesman Matt Ross said there's nothing to worry about. He noted that a transfer of ownership would be "subject to strict and extensive review process" from the Higher Learning Commission, a regional accrediting agency. "City leaders have met with Raffles several times over the course of the year and found them to be serious partners who share our excitement about this opportunity," Ross says.
If the deal between Raffles and Laureate goes through by the end of the calendar year, as planned, the Singaporean firm will have on its hands an institution with a recently turbulent history. Formerly the College of Santa Fe, the school shut down in 2009 because of budget troubles. City officials purchased the property for $19.5 million and leased it to Laureate. It then opened as Santa Fe University of Art and Design and refocused on a narrower curriculum.
Laureate's decision to unload SFUAD came about seven months after the Baltimore-based company, the largest for-profit higher education corporation in the world, announced its intention to go public. That hasn't happened yet.
Laureate now finds itself in the middle of the presidential election after tax filings showed the company paid Bill Clinton about $17 million over six years to serve as an honorary chancellor, the Baltimore Sun reports. Although such arrangements are common, Republican candidate Donald Trump has made discredited assertions that the Clintons laundered millions of dollars through the company. Laureate also has a legal snag on its record. Two students sued the company's school in Minnesota for "unnecessarily" stretching out the process for obtaining degrees. The case settled out of court.